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When Sex Means Survival for LGBTQ Teens

A new study reveals the reasons that LGBTQ teens find themselves pushed into the sex trade—and why the cycle is so hard to break.
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AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Sex work is work. Where it is legal, sex workers are somewhat protected by labor and health-regulation laws. Where it is criminalized, any infrastructure is largely informal, with workers left vulnerable to the whims of clients. Sex work takes many forms, and adults do sex work for a variety of reasons. It can be fulfilling and it can be dangerous. It can be temporary or long-term. It can be a choice or it can be coercion.  

"Survival sex" takes place on a related but separate matrix. An Urban Institute report released today looks at a first-of-its-kind study of survival sex and LGBTQ youth in New York City. The study, done in partnership with an organization called Streetwise and Safe, drew from interviews of 300 respondents between the ages of 13 and 21 years old. This is the first study with that large a sample size to examine this issue and include the words of study participants speaking to their peers.

Meredith Dank, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, worked on a related study in 2008. "I thought, 'Wow, this would be a lot more effective if there were young people trained to interview other young people."

The approach appears to have worked, yielding honest and complex answers from LGBTQ teens who engaged in survival sex. The report presents a comprehensive look at the landscape of survival sex for LGBTQ teens in New York City: The reasons they turn to it, the social-service barriers that leave few other options, the difficulties that a lack of services presents to getting out, and the complicated purposes—beyond allowing basic subsistence—that it serves.

First, Dank clarifies the issue of choice in survival sex involving LGBTQ teens. "To the extent this can be considered a choice, it is born out of the fact that there are no other choices," she says. "Language when it comes to this is so difficult; if you say they have a choice, that implies full agency, that they had other options. This is very much about resilience."